Former East German Stasi Officer Expresses Admiration For, Dismay At US Government’s Surveillance Capabilities.
While Germany’s security agencies seem to be impressed with the size of our surveillance coverage, the German people are understandably a bit more perturbed. The divided Germany of the not-too-distant past saw many people on the eastern side of the Wall spend a great deal of time being surveilled by their countrymen, and recent developments echo that past all too well.
A former Stasi member, Wolfgang Schmidt, was recently interviewed by the McClatchy news service. Unsurprisingly, there’s a hint of envy in his discussion of the US government’s surveillance infrastructure.
“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.
As was pointed out late last year, the US government has more data on the average American citizen than the East German Stasi, a division created solely to surveil German citizens. This was noted before the recent leaks, meaning what’s been gathered by the NSA, FBI, etc. is exponentially greater than previously estimated.
The Stasi’s surveillance was much more targeted than our current efforts, though this was mainly due to technical limitations, rather than out of any concern for German citizens.
In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.
“So much information, on so many people,” he said.
Today, there are no such limitations. Everything can be gathered, stored and sorted through at these agencies’ convenience. How much has been collected still remains a mystery. FOIA requests sent to the NSA attempting to discover what’s included have been denied, with the agency predictably stating that confirming, denying or releasing any information would do “exceedingly grave damage to national security.”
Former East Germans, however, have been granted access to their personal Stasi files. Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy advisor, obtained his recently. Over 15 years, the Stasi put together 9,000 pages on his activities. Stefan Wolfe, who curates the East German Museum, also had a look at his file and found it to be mostly comprised of routine, everyday life.
“When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew,” he said. “A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.
The author of this McClatchy piece refers to the Stasi’s obsessive detailing of day-to-day activities as the “banality of evil.” When an agency makes an effort to track everything about someone, actions or words that normally mean nothing are attributed significance by those performing the surveillance. “It has to mean something, otherwise we wouldn’t be tracking it.” But grabbing everything means ending up with a whole lot of nothing, as Wolfe points out.
“The lesson,” he added, “is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”
Even the former Stasi agent, despite his begrudging admiration, finds the US surveillance efforts troubling.
Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.
“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
You can’t justify harvesting this much data if you’re not going to use it. And if you can’t find anything worth using it for, you’ll connect the all-important “dots” until it resembles something… anything. Anything that departs even minimally from the norm becomes suspicious. Using encryption? Probably a threat. Parking too far away from a hotel? Potential terrorist. Find the local water a little tough to drink? Let’s get that file started. Unwittingly engage an undercover FBI agent in conversation? Chances are you’ll soon be converted into a terrorist.
The US, after years of acting as the world’s policeman, has finally revealed itself to instead be the unmarked van that’s constantly parked just down the world’s street. (And the unexplained “clicking noise” on every US citizens’ phone call…) It has the sympathy of several of the world’s governments, many of which are directly benefitting from the US’s surveillance infrastructure or hoping to construct one of their own. But the citizens of the world are more wary, especially those that who’ve already been subjected to intrusive, non-stop surveillance by their own governments.